Oretha Jones hasn't filed a federal tax return in at least two decades, but she will this year.
The 81-year-old West Baltimore resident learned yesterday that she has to fill out a tax return - not usually necessary for those who rely mostly on Social Security benefits - to get her tax rebate, part of an economic stimulus package approved by Congress this year.
"I've been waiting to find out what I had to do," Jones said. "I was wondering if seniors get it, and I was trying to find out how."
She and other seniors learned more about the rebates yesterday from members of Maryland's congressional delegation, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Rep. John Sarbanes, and representatives from the Internal Revenue Service and the Baltimore CASH Campaign.
Standing in the Western Community Action Center on Pennsylvania Avenue, the elected officials implored the seniors to spread the word to those who don't file tax returns but receive more than $3,000 in wages, Social Security retirement, certain Veterans Affairs disability or survivor benefits or railroad retirement. Supplemental Security Income cannot be counted toward this amount.
Rebates range from $300 to $600 for individuals, and $600 to $1,200 for married couples filing jointly. Rebates begin to be reduced when a taxpayer's adjusted gross income exceeds $75,000 for an individual and $150,000 for a couple.
Taxpayers also will receive $300 for each qualifying child under age 17 as of the end of last year.
"One of our greatest fears is that in our community, a lot of people won't take advantage of it," Cummings said.
More than 2.5 million families in Maryland are eligible for rebates, officials said.
Officials noted yesterday that many people have failed to take advantage of the earned income tax credit.
"We know what happened when we passed what's known as the earned income tax credit," Cardin said. "Low-wage, working families can get tax refunds. The problem is many don't apply for it. We're afraid the same thing can happen with this rebate."
Up to a quarter of people who qualify for the earned income tax credit never take advantage of it, so these and other events have been organized to raise awareness.
"If you've already filed a return, you don't have to do a thing but wait at home for us to send you a check," Richard Byrd Jr., commissioner of the IRS wage and investment division, told those gathered.
Those who do not normally submit a return will receive a package in the mail with directions, a sample form, a tax form to fill out and an envelope in which to return it. The packages will be mailed this week, Byrd said.
"You only have to do five lines on this form," he said.
People can also file for their stimulus rebate electronically at no cost through the IRS Web site, www.irs.gov. To assist people, IRS taxpayer assistance centers will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 29, Byrd said.
The deadline to file a tax return is April 15, but anyone filing just for the rebate has until the end of the year to apply.
"Please send us what we need so we can send you what you deserve," he said.
The Baltimore CASH Campaign, in partnership with Baltimore Housing, the IRS and other nonprofits, also has about 10 sites still open to help people who earn less than $40,000 a year fill out their basic income tax returns for free. They also will help people fill out returns specifically for their rebate checks.
"This is more money in people's pockets," said Joanna Smith-Ramani, the nonprofit's executive director. The forms are pretty simple, but it can be intimidating for those who have not filed a return in 20 years, she said.
"All these things are barriers," she said.
Baltimore's community action centers will stay open until 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays to assist clients, Smith-Ramani said.
The rebate money will be distributed to an estimated 155 million taxpayers, Byrd said.
If returns have been received and processed by April 15, those who requested direct deposits should get their payments between May 2 and May 16. Those who prefer a paper check should look for them in their mailboxes between May 16 and July 11.
Jones, who lives in Zion Towers, a senior residence on Pennsylvania Avenue, said she first heard about the stimulus rebates on television but wasn't certain that she would be eligible. But now she's prepared.
"I'm waiting for the packet to come through the mail, and I'm filling it out as soon as I get it," Jones said.
She said she wasn't sure how she will spend her money once it arrives.
"There's so much I need to do," Jones said. "I really hadn't thought of it. I wasn't getting my hopes up."
Getting help on filing a tax return
The IRS has eight taxpayer assistance centers around the state, including in Baltimore and Annapolis, where Maryland residents can get answers to their questions. People who qualify for the earned income tax credit or who don't usually file taxes also can get help preparing their taxes there. For more information in Baltimore, call 410-962-7969. To reach the Annapolis, Frederick, Salisbury, Hagerstown or LaVale offices, call 410-224-8799.
People who earn less than $40,000 can also call the Baltimore CASH Campaign at 410-234-8008 for free tax preparation at about 10 sites around Baltimore.
For more on tax rebates and to find a calculator, visit baltimoresun.com/consuminginterests